The Precariat and the Basic Income: Part 2

January 27, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

In my previous post on Guy Standing’s recent talk on the precariat at Goldsmith’s College, I rehearsed his argument about the economic and political changes that created the precariat, the characteristics of precarious life, and the composition of the precariat. With all of that laid out, he went back again to Karl Polanyi, or at least to his interpretation of Polanyi. He deduces three principles from The Great Transformation that seem relevant to where we are now.

  1. Every new forward march has to built on the insecurities of an emerging class, and there must be new forms of action. There must be a struggle for recognition (cf Syriza, Podemos) – which needs to be a process of subjective recognition. He argued that Podemos is leading the polls in Spain because it is a precariat party. In Milan, different but similar, the *sciopero social* or “social strike.”
  2. The second struggle is a struggle for representation in the state.
  3. The third struggle is a struggle for redistribution. A lot of redistribution is needed: a redistribution of security; a redistribution of the control of time (the precarisat has none); the redistribution of access to quality space (in the face of the shrinking of the commons); the redistribution of access to education (as against standardised training for the labour market; redistribution of financial knowledge and advice; and a redistribution of financial capital (see the discussion of Basic Income below).


The Charter

So what would be in the charter for the precariat? Standing argued that we need to reinvent the French revolutionary trinity of egalité, liberté, fraternité (solidarity), to build on the traditions of republican freedom, rather than liberal freedom.

There are 29 articles making up The Precariat Charter: he didn’t go through them all, and I’m not going to summarise everything he said here. But a reasonable paraphrase is that it’s about finding different ways to think about work, different ways to measure it, and new ways to put limits on it.

Different ways to think about it: reconceptualise what we mean by work (beyond measuring paid labour).

Different ways to measure it: overhaul what we use as labour statistics. More and more of what we do for work is not seen in our statistics.

New ways to put limits on it: regulate forms of flexibility, for example around the amount of unpaid work (with layers upon layers of unpaid application process) employers expect people to do. Every member of the precariat knows they have to do time off the job in order to reproduce themselves for the labour market.

Basic Income

But maybe the most important one is about redistributing income. How? I’m quoting Standing here, quoting Confucius: “The easiest way out is through the door”. And the easiest way to redistribute income is to redistribute income.

This is the case for Basic Income, paid of right to citizens. There have been recent pilots promoted by the Basic Income Network. In the pilots in rural India there were also randomised control groups. The result: far more work, more production, and economic activity. And women also gained more autonomy and power (“we’re not fearful anymore”), as they also did in a pilot in Namibia.

In Alaska the state’s Permanent Fund – under which part of the profits from oil go into a capital fund from which a small annual dividend is paid to all – has created a form of Basic Income. When the scheme started, Alaska had the worst poverty rate in the US and the highest levels of inequality. Now it has the lowest poverty rate and the lowest level of inequality. And in Brazil, the Bolsa Familia, introduced in 2003, is a form of Basic Income: although there are conditions, they are loosely applied. Lula has said it was why he was re-elected. There’s a good recent post on the All That Is Solid blog on why the Labour Party should adopt it as policy, although I live in hope not expectation.

Citizen’s Easing

Of course, there are preconceptions about the Basic Income and its possible adverse effects, although both the Financial Times and the Economist seem to be coming round to it. The sorts of criticism I’ve seen – Standing didn’t spend long on these in his talk – are that it encourages idleness (those pesky “undeserving poor”) and reduces initiative, or that it simply provides a platform for unscrupulous employers to drive down wages. The recent evidence doesn’t suggest this happens; instead people with more security become more active as their fearfulness is reduced.

Standing talked about the need for a small amount of conditionality, since Basic Income is a function of citizenship; migrants, for example, might have to earn basic income in increments through residence. It might be associated with a legal or moral requirement to vote – to fulfil the most basic requirements of citizenship. He also observed that it might be a paradoxical way of resolving some of the probelsm that politicians are most concerned about, such as economic migration within Europe. So, instead of the vast amount of quantitative easing just announced by the ECB – which we know will do wonders for the balance sheets of the financial sector, make bankers richer, and increase inequality – a “Citizen’s Easing,” funding a Basic Income in the poorest regions of the EU, would reduce inequality, increase aggregate demand in those regions, and reduce migration.

The century of economic rights

I’m increasingly persuaded by the arguments about Basic Income. One of the reasons is that the pilots and other examples seem to be positive, and quite strongly so. A second reason is that if we’re worried about inequality – and even the OECD and the IMF (pdf) are now worried about inequality – it seems to be a relatively direct way to do something about it, especially if it is funded through some kind of tax on wealth, capital, or land. A third is that many of the arguments against it (and evidence) are hangovers from a 20th model of thinking about paid work.

As Standing said in response to questions, “The 20th century system of economic distribution lasted for 60 years and it’s gone. The 21st century is the century of economic rights.” And a fourth: that it is a way of correcting the excessive imbalances of power that we now see in the labour market, in which those with least power are coerced into work through sanctions. It gives people the power to say ‘no’.

And I also wonder if the long shift in values that we are seeing means that it is an idea that now fits the landscape. This is a short version of a much larger argument, but following Hardin Tibbs’ sharp analysis (pdf), we’re close to the point where – in the US and Europe – Inglehart’s “post-materialists” are now in a majority, as the “modernists” fade away. The values of post-materialists, which are about “autonomy and diversity over authority, hierarchy, and conformity,” are values that chime with a society that makes the most of a Basic Income, that makes its own work from it.

The image at the top of this post was taken by rUssEll shAw hIggs and is published here with thanks under a Creative Commons licence. Some rights reserved.

Andrew Curry

The Next Wave is my personal blog. I use it from time to time to write about drivers of change, trends, emerging issues, and other futures and scenarios topics. I work for the the School of International Futures in London. (Its blog is here). I started as a financial journalist for BBC Radio 4’s Financial World Tonight, before moving to Channel 4 News during the 1980s.... Read more.

Tags: basic income, the precariat